is (Aramis!) isn't (AAARGH! Corey!) isn't (Darn you, Todd Walker!) is (Jerry!) is (Holly!) isn't (Sergio...) forgiven.
Drat. And I could have used worse words, but I think I got them all out at the ballpark. This could have been a turning point; instead it's just another depressing, desolate, despondent, disagreeable, discouraging, disheartening, dispiriting (and that's just the "D" entries from the online thesaurus) 5-4 loss to the Nationals at Wrigley Field today. The winning run, a home run by Brian Schneider, landed about three rows directly in front of us -- so if you saw it, you probably saw us starting to get our throwback balls ready. Speaking of throwbacks, when the Nats came back on the field after Schneider's homer, CF Brad Wilkerson threw the practice ball into the bleachers. It got thrown back on the field, so Wilkerson heaved it onto Waveland Avenue -- where it (or a reasonable facsimile) was also thrown back, to some well-deserved laughter. After that, Wilkerson threw it back into the Washington bullpen.
The significance of this loss, beyond the fact that it dropped the Cubs to .500 at home (21-21) and overall (40-40), is this:
This is the first time the Cubs have been swept in a three-game series at Wrigley Field since Dusty Baker became the manager. (They were swept in a two-game set last July by the Cardinals.) The last three-game sweep of the Cubs at the Yard was accomplished by the Atlanta Braves on September 7, 8 and 9, 2001, almost four years ago.
Where do I begin here? Well, we were all happy to learn that after many, many weeks of suggesting that Dusty put some high (or at least highER) OBA hitters at the top of the lineup, that today Jerry Hairston was playing CF and leading off, and Todd Walker hitting second. Walker had a tough day -- going 0-for-6 and making a critical error in the top of the 11th inning on what should have been an easy double-play ball (did the ghost of Alex Gonzalez show up somehow today?), eventually leading to two Nats runs.
But Hairston had a good day, both at the plate -- where his leadoff homer in the bottom of the 11th made our hearts start fast again; and then, for once, the Cubs had a two-out rally, with seeing-eye hits from Jeromy Burnitz, Aramis Ramirez (whose game-tying, 9th-inning, two-out homer got the crowd revved up to a point I haven't seen since that amazing Cardinal series in September 2003), and Todd Hollandsworth, who tied it up for the second time.
I have a bit of a bone to pick with Aramis here. Yes, I know he's still nursing a sore shin, and his groin muscle is probably never going to be what it once was. But Ramirez hit a ball into the right-center field gap, and we were all surprised to look up and see him standing on ... first base.
This clearly changed the entire strategy of the inning. If Ramirez goes to second, then the Nats probably walk Hollandsworth and pitch to Neifi! (Howard wore his Neifi! shirt today, but all Mr. Perez got out of it was an intentional walk.) As it turned out, Holly drove in the tying run with a double of his own -- which then led to that free pass to Neifi, and Henry Blanco nearly beat out an infield grounder that would have won the game.
But it didn't.
Until the ninth inning, the game was pretty boring. Not even the Tomato Inning (the fifth, today) helped. But after Aramis' game-tying homer, the game excitement level ratcheted from somnolent to amazing in a heartbeat -- and also why you NEVER leave a game till the last out. (Tell that to half the crowd, including some of our fellow season-ticket holders, who left for Taste of Chicago after the 10th.) The Nats scratched out two runs off Carlos Zambrano, whose pitch count ran up to 371 by the fifth inning -- OK, not really, but it felt that way. Z did strike out seven, and kept the game close enough. Once again, both opposing runs scored with two out... something that's been a problem for this pitching staff for several years now. "Close the deal!" as Phil would say.
One interesting play came in the sixth inning. With Nats runners on first and second and nobody out, Marlon Byrd popped a bunt that was caught by Z. If he'd have thrown right to first base to double off Jose Guillen, the Cubs might have had a shot at a triple play. Instead, Z threw to second to double off Vinny Castilla, who was standing between second and third like a man waiting to sign the autographs that the Cub players sign for various fans that are chosen to run out to each position every Sunday (today, we joked: "Watch Jerry Hairston turn a $10 baseball into ... a $3 baseball!")
Speaking of Guillen, the fans sitting in front of us spent half an inning trying to taunt him, but apparently couldn't read the name on his uniform, because they kept calling him "GUL-len". This is wrong on so many levels, particularly since there is a well-known baseball figure in Chicago, who has played and managed here for nearly 20 years, with the same last name.
It's "GHEE-yen". (Or some variation on that theme.)
Let's talk some more about Corey, who is apparently going to sit for a few days. This is a good thing, in my opinion -- it's the perfect way to get him to stop pressing. He was put in the game to pinch-run in the last of the 10th after Michael Barrett walked. So what is he going to do? Well, everyone in the ballpark, of the remains of the second-largest throng of the year (40,006), knew what Corey was going to do, and so did Brian Schneider, so he threw Corey out stealing.
Well, I dunno. Some risks are worth taking, but I didn't think this one was. Jason Dubois is at the plate with one out. Obviously, Dubois isn't going to bunt -- he's up there trying to drive the ball into the gap or out of the ballpark. If he does so, Patterson scores easily. Even if Dubois singles, Corey is on third with Hairston at bat. Maybe it was a blown hit-and-run. But it sucked a lot of the air out of the house.
Before the game I got my first BP home run of the year, cheered on by the handful of my season-ticket cohorts who had arrived at gate-opening. I didn't see who hit the ball (it was a Cub; Washington didn't take BP today) -- it bounced off the bench in front of me, down a few rows, and I just walked over and picked it up. Later I showed the ball to Mike, who said it wasn't a ball intended for game use or had been used in a game, because it still had the original shine on it. Game balls are rubbed up by umpires with special mud from the Delaware River and wind up somewhat discolored, though still show up white when used.
Can you tell I'm trying to distract and digress? (And yes, I'm still in the "D" section!)
Several people came by (some on their way out) to say that losing this game would be a back-breaker. I don't agree -- because the three stirring comebacks show that this team DOES have some fight in it, and I do believe that Jim Hendry will make a significant move or two over the next twenty-eight days, till the non-waiver trading deadline four weeks from today.
Say, any interest in picking up Bret Boone? The Mariners DFA'd him today. Yes, the Cubs don't really need a second baseman, but could he play left field? He's only two years removed from a 35 HR, 117 RBI, .902 OPS season, and once the DFA period is over, he'd cost the Cubs only a pro-rated share of the minimum salary. It's worth thinking outside the box about something like this, anyway.
This and that: Mrs. Nomar Garciaparra, also known as Mia Hamm, was honored before the game today for her contributions to women's soccer in this country. Obviously, this was arranged long before the season for Nomar's benefit, and it would have meant a lot more if Nomar had been playing today. He did show up in uniform, and went behind the plate to take a ceremonial first pitch... upon which we cringed, not wanting him to crouch on his recovering groin muscle.
Surprisingly, he crouched easily, with no evident pain. Howard and I agreed this was a very good sign in Nomar's ongoing rehab, and perhaps he will be ready by the end of this month.
Finally, congratulations to all of you, and to all of the Cub fans who, in a surge of online voting in the last week, not only got Derrek Lee elected to the NL All-Star team, but got him the most votes of ANY National League player. Of Lee's 3,560,316 total votes, 3,277,475 were cast online -- also the most votes of anyone in online voting. No vote totals for write-ins have yet been released, and clearly, off Neifi!'s performance the last month, he really didn't deserve to be elected (SS David Eckstein will be one of six Cardinals starting), but I will try to find out how many write-ins we (and our friends over at The Cub Reporter managed to generate for Neifi! Aramis Ramirez was named as a NL reserve; he won the Player Ballot and finished second in fan voting.
So, the Cubs head to the road in two tough places, four games in Atlanta and three in Miami, and they've really got to win four of the seven at the very least, to hit the All-Star break over .500. Onward.